“I felt as though, in a way, he was the son that I never had,” said Kahan Dhillon, recently in the headlines for his multibillion-dollar revitalization proposal for the city of Baltimore.
“He’s done more than most adults do in their lifetime,” said Christi Green, executive director of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center.
“The kid is just unbelievable,” said Amy Gainsburg.
Granted, Amy Gainsburg is Noah Gainsburg’s mother, so there may some bias there. But the work that 17-year-old Noah Gainsburg does just seems to inspire gushing.
Noah, for his part, is aware of the way that adults in his life speak about him. But, he said, he’s only got one constituency in mind when it comes to his work at St. Francis, a nonprofit education and community services organization in Reservoir Hill: “Kids. There’s no question about it,” he said.
The plight of impoverished children is something he takes very seriously. Since the time his mother took him on a service trip to a Honduran orphanage, his activism has often focused on people just a little bit younger than he is. Whether volunteering in the Dominican Republic, the British Virgin Islands or Baltimore, his enthusiasm for helping people has caught the eye of everyone around him.
His mother recalls him donating his favorite Ravens blanket to a homeless man caught in the snow, and then taking him grocery shopping and buying him a hat, gloves and a scarf.
“Noah’s an amazing kid,” Green said.
Noah’s father is a veterinary neurosurgeon and his mother has worked in nonprofits for the past decade (she’s also the granddaughter of Joe Mandell, of Mandell-Ballow fame). Noah, born and raised in Greenspring Valley, attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the Jemicy School and Greenspring Montessori School before entering high school at the Friends School of Baltimore. At the beginning of his junior year, he was only tangentially familiar with St. Francis. Then a friend of his, Mason Davis, encouraged Noah to start volunteering at St. Francis, where Davis was already a tutor.
Right away, Green said, “we fell in love with him, and he fell in love with us.”
He worked as an upper-level math and science tutor for kids 11 to 14 and quickly became a favorite of the kids at St. Francis. He and Mason created a Friends of St. Francis club at their school and helped secure thousands of dollars in much-needed school supplies.
“When he first started at St. Francis,” Amy said, “he told me he had to figure out a way to make a million dollars. I’m like, ‘Honey why don’t you start with a slightly smaller goal?’”
Noah decided to spend the summer of 2018 as a teaching assistant at St. Francis — but told Green he’d forgo his pay. “He said he wanted it to all go back to the kids and the center and the programming,” Green said.
All he needs is a turban and I’ll sign his adoption papers. — Kahan Dhillon
In midsummer, Noah started a GoFundMe for St. Francis, with a goal of raising $5,000. As of press time, $5,650 has been raised.
This year Noah also got close with a 13-year-old student who Green describes as the most at-risk child at St. Francis. The student doesn’t have consistent caregivers, and St. Francis closes at night, leaving him largely on his own. So Noah took him under his wing, taking extra time to interact with him, having him to his house for sleepovers, taking him to dinner with his family.
“He’s really becoming like a little brother to me,” said Noah, the youngest of five. Now, the student tells the staff at St. Francis that Noah is his best friend.
“Noah is saving his life,” Green said.
“I hate talking about it because it just makes me upset,” Noah said. “I’ve just tried to be there for him over the past few months. I see what these kids do every day. I see how amazing and wonderful they are to work with and talk to and I see their life situations and how they didn’t get to choose them — it was just bad luck. I’ve grown up in a pretty privileged life. … I wish I could give that to all these students, but I know, at least right now, that’s not possible. I don’t have that kind of power. So my purpose at this point is to do whatever I can to help.”
That sense of purpose, Kahan Dhillon said, is part of what drew him to Noah. Dhillon is a developer with the Alexandria, Virginia-based Regent Company and sits on the board of St. Francis. He met Noah this summer at a St. Francis fundraising event at Power Plant.
“Noah approached me and said, ‘You know, I’m a volunteer with the center and I really care a lot about the center. And I love working with the children and I’ve been hearing all about what you’ve been doing and I would really just love to learn more. And I was hoping we could sit down and you can talk to me sometime about what [you’re] doing and if there’s any way I could be of assistance to what you’re doing I’d really like to do so,’” Dhillon recalled.
Dhillon is currently spearheading The Baltimore Renaissance, an ambitious redevelopment plan that’s still gaining steam in the city. His meeting with Noah, he said, was serendipitous, as the project was lacking a youth outreach coordinator. Dhillon described the project to Noah, who was enthusiastic, and now Noah recruits ambassadors for the project, among other duties.
It’s not hard to see what connects Noah and Dhillon. Both have a passion for the revitalization of Baltimore, and both get excited when they talk about it. Dhillon calls the connection “euphoric.”
“All he needs is a turban and I’ll sign his adoption papers,” joked Dhillon, who is a Sikh.
His work with St. Francis and with TBR, Noah said, has helped him gain confidence he didn’t know he had. As a public speaker, he’s improved tremendously, he said.
There’s also his Judaism. The work he’s done, he said, has given him the confidence to start embracing his heritage, despite a prior fear of discrimination.
“I used to be scared of that potential backlash. Now I’m kind of more embracing, like, who I am, as someone who is a young Jewish man,” he said.
He also eventually wants to have a bar mitzvah, as dyslexia prevented him from doing the requisite learning when he was in middle school. “We were just dealing with trying to get him on track with the English language, so learning Hebrew and going to Hebrew school wasn’t our focus, unfortunately,” his mother said. In the meantime, he’s started to wear a gold chain with a Star of David
What does the future hold for Noah? He’s not sure yet. College applications are in full swing. He always envisioned himself as a computer engineer, he said — he’s built three of his own computers — but political activism has become of much greater interest to him than it once was. He joked that his SoundCloud and his largely Minecraft-focused Twitter account may hold him back in politics, but just in case they don’t, he keeps up with as much news from a broad a spectrum of sources — CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, Breitbart and Antifa newsletters. “I’m a very political person,” he said.
For now, he’s content to stick with volunteering his time to TBR and St. Francis. And one thing’s for sure: “I know that I want to help people.”
Name: Ilanit Abraham
Hometown: Owings Mills
School: Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School
Areas of activism: Gun control, Jewish-African-American relations, Israel advocacy
Like many teens across the country, Ilanit Abraham was galvanized by the Parkland shooting in February. Unlike most of them, Ilanit lost a family friend, Alex Schacter, among the 17 who were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Ilanit is originally from south Florida).
Now, after leading the gun violence walk-out at Beth Tfiloh in the spring and attending March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., Ilanit organizes local chapters of the National Association of Students Against Gun Violence. Ilanit found herself “wanting desperate change” after the Parkland shooting, and hopes that NASAGV can be a part of it.
“It’s something that touched me personally,” she said. “I connected to it more than a lot of other people around me. … Even though gun control is not a new idea, with, sadly, more current events about it, there’s more of a push for it, and I think that laws that we have now, or lack thereof, just haven’t been aggressive enough.”
Her activism goes beyond gun control. This year, Ilanit will take part in the Social Justice Teen Fellowship, a collaboration between the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel that seeks to create partnerships between Jewish and African-American teens in Baltimore. “The goal is to build more of a relationship and educate each other,” she said. Ilanit also hopes to become more involved with advocating for Israel in the upcoming year.
Even though she still struggles to connect with Judaism religiously, Ilanit sees tikkun olam as deeply connected to her work. “Repairing the world and making a better life and space for whoever needs is something that’s important to me.”
Name: Cory Kowitz
Hometown: Owings Mills
School: McDonogh School
Areas of activism: Food allergy awareness, homeless advocacy
Cory Kowitz was just a year old when he was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy. Thus began a lifetime of notifying waiters, carrying around an EpiPen and wiping down seats at Camden Yards or M&T Bank Stadium. Today, Cory does those things easily, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I really did not like that I had a peanut allergy,” he said. “I really was jealous of people who didn’t have serious allergies.”
It was a long road, but he was helped along by the confidence he gained in working with Food Allergy Research and Education, a national nonprofit that Cory has been involved with since middle school. As a youth ambassador, he’s spoken to younger kids about overcoming stigma and feeling comfortable with their allergies, and he’s gone on local news shows to promote FARE’s annual fundraising walk in Druid Hill Park. This year, he and his mother have raised more than $3,000 for the walk as of press time.
In addition to his work with FARE, Cory has also spent time volunteering at the Kids Safe Zone, a recreation center for disadvantaged youth in Baltimore. Working with kids who may not have a home to return to after school, Cory says, has been incredibly rewarding. “It made me feel like I had a purpose,” he said.
Though Cory will leave for college next year — where he hopes to play baseball as he does at McDonogh — he also intends to continue the work he does at home.
Name: Evyatar Singerman
School: Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School
Areas of activism: Cancer support
For the past two years, Evyatar Singerman has been volunteering with the Baltimore branch of Chai Lifeline, a cancer support organization. They provide a wide range of services to Jewish families who have children diagnosed with cancer, and Evyatar is part of the Big Brothers program, which pairs Jewish teens with those children for one-on-one and group activities.
After seeing his older sister Adi volunteer with the organization, Evyatar decided to join during his sophomore year, though he did not join the Big Brothers program until his junior year. “I saw the impact that it had on the community, and I sort of realized that it’s an important organization that does important work,” Evyatar said.
Over the course of his junior year, Evyatar said, he learned a lot about selflessness. “You’re there for the kid the whole way through, and you really just want the kid to be happy and healthy,” he said. He helped plan group events for other pairings, and grew very close with his assigned “sibling.”
“In a way,” he said, “you sort of become part of the family, which is really cool.”
In the next year, Evyatar hopes to take on more of the responsibilities that come with being a high school senior in Chai Lifeline — additional duties in event planning, for one. But there will also be a new little brother to form a relationship with.
“It was a really amazing experience to see the joy in the organization,” he said. “Through all the illness, there was a lot of happiness and a lot of positivity and that was not something that I really expected.”
Name: Sydney Huber
School: Franklin High School
Areas of activism: Special needs, hunger
Sydney Huber is just beginning her junior year of high school, but she’s already an old hand when it comes to volunteering. So much so, in fact, that after serving for the last year on the 4Front Teen Service Council, she now mentors younger students, guiding them towards charitable organizations and advising them on the best ways to get involved. (4Front, which seeks to increase community participation among Jewish teens, is a collaboration between the JCC of Greater Baltimore, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jim Joseph Foundation.)
After spending her freshman year volunteering with Best Buddies, an organization that pairs teens with kids with special needs, Sydney decided that she wanted to continue that work at a larger scale. So during her sophomore year, she joined the Teen Service Council, where she and a few other like-minded teens identified the Friendship Circle, a Chabad organization similar to Best Buddies, as a group that they wanted to support.
For the whole year, they supported Friendship Circle programs, planning large-scale events and attending joint activities with Friendship Circle participants and residents of Owings Mills senior living community Atrium Village. The latter experience was “amazing,” Sydney said, “because not only did we get to help special needs kids, but we also got to spend time with elderly people.”
Over the course of her time with the Teen Service Council, Sydney said she learned quite a bit, from event planning to getting outside of her comfort zone. But what was perhaps most important was learning how to interact with children with special needs “without making them feel different.”
For good measure, Sydney also spends the first Saturday of every month at a soup kitchen on Reisterstown Road.
“I really enjoy helping the community,” she said.